Sri Lanka might come across as a droplet of an isle, but don’t misjudge its puny size. Owing to its isolated state, deluge-worthy diagonally blowing double-monsoons and altitudes of every kind, the country is bestowed with unimaginable biodiversity. Some say the variation of an entire continent is ensconced within this tiny island nation. And on top of that, as history bears witness, Sri Lankans have always loved their wilderness. The royal families protected and preserved swathes of jungles as sanctuaries. And this happened not today or a couple of centuries back but 2000 years ago! Believe it or not, here you will find the world’s first forest reserve, Mihintale, which was created in 3rd century BC. Yeah, love towards nature is deeply sutured in the hearts of every Lankan. And the present generation is equally invested in it. Battling deforestation and poaching, young wildlifers are creating a brilliant network of well-connected national parks and successfully working towards the conservation of its local flora and fauna. Just like Big Five is to the African safari and Bengal Tigers are to Indian wildlife safari, no Sri Lankan wild-exploration is complete without trailing the secretive and furtive apex predator of its forest – the Sri Lankan leopard.
But who will bell the cat?
But planning a safari around this solitary ever-elusive cat is no mean feat! Yes, we know that 100% guaranteed animal sighting is virtually impossible, and that is why we have come up with this ultimate guide to leopard safaris in Sri Lanka. You will have all the information, right at your fingertips to make the most informed decision.
See, we have got you covered!
Colloquially called ‘kotiya’ (in Sinhalese), the Sri Lankan leopard is a subspecies of Indian leopard and is endemic to this country. What set it apart from its Indian counterpart are its close-set rosettes which are smaller in size and its body size which is somewhat bigger than the Indian ones. According to wildlife experts, lack of competition and relative abundance of prey has made the Sri Lankan leopard a rather large leopard subspecies. They are nocturnal creatures and prefer to hunt at night, but they are equally active during dawn and dusk, and prefer to rest during the afternoons. The little island of Sri Lanka has the most concentration of leopards per square kilometer in the world with Yala National Park leading the list. You can see them lounging on the treetops, crossing game paths, drinking water from a natural reservoir, playing with their partners, mating or engaging in territorial battles. In short, just doing their everyday animal thing-y! Nonetheless, there will be photogenic moments galore. In short, Sri Lanka is the best place in Asia to get up, close and personal with the leopards. But which National Park will maximize your chance of sighting? When should you go? What else should you expect to see there? Let us weigh in all the options and lay it out in front of you so that your safari plans get an optimum boost.
Best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka
Although there are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, there are top two which are forever in competition when it comes to leopard sightings. And since they are situated at two opposite corners of the country, it becomes a tough decision for travelers to zero in on one. So let’s discuss both the parks concerning leopard sighting and try and identify their virtues which can help you with picking the best suitable park for your trip!
Yala National Park – Block 1
Your first few google-searches on leopard safaris in Sri Lanka will definitely shoot out this name at you, Yala National Park. The reason is the highest cat concentration amongst all the national parks in Sri Lanka. And in Block 1 itself, around 40 leopards are ambling around in 54.44 sq mile. And this is very important – Block 1! Remember, Yala National Park comprises of 5 blocks and not every block gives you an equal opportunity to sight animals. In fact, Blocks 2, 3 and 4 are reserved for research works and documentaries. And Block 5 animals are relatively shy so they don’t make daring appearances like the leopards of Block 1 do. It is highly recommended that you cross-check with your wildlife safari company to confirm whether Block 1 is open during your visiting time or not. Block 1 is shut down every September till the end of October for annual park maintenance, so one confirmation goes a long way. That said, this is sort of an open secret amongst the park visitors. And this results in that dreadful safari jeep jams inside the park and many other unethical animal treatments. So it is highly advisable to engage a safari company with eco-friendly practices and trained naturalists who believe in conservational practices. The best time for leopard safari is of course during the day-break. Early morning sunrise in the green forest is an enchanting experience. Denizens of the deep also go around doing their daily activities giving you an insane opportunity to make brilliant photographs. Moreover, the afternoon Sri Lankan sun is unforgiving, so animals retreat deep into the forest making them all the more difficult to spot. But come evening, jungles are lit with prowling beasts! Apart from leopards, Yala hosts 215 bird species including six endemic species of Sri Lanka, 44 varieties of mammals with a good chance of encountering the cute primate Red Slender Loris or the sloth bears during the ‘palu’-blooming season of May onwards. The variety of ecosystems in Yala is just mindboggling. You will find everything here – moist monsoon forests, freshwater as well as marine wetlands as the park borders the Indian Ocean.
Best time to see leopards in Yala
Yala is situated in the Southeastern part of Sri Lanka and is generally visited by the southwestern monsoons in full gusto during June/July. So that’s the best time to avoid the park as the leopard will hardly visit the game paths or the water pools during heavy rain. Like all cats, leopards don’t like to get wet and so retreat into caves during rainfall. The best time of the year to visit the park will be thus the dry season which lasts from May to October. This is the time when the vegetation is thinner and water levels are low offering excellent field of vision to spot this beautiful big cat. Chances also beef up during February to May (although you can give the rainy month of April a miss). The park is open round the year except for the annual park maintenance months of September and October. Again: confirm before planning!
Wildlife friendly accommodation near Yala
Wild Coast Tented Lodge
Some people enjoy the raw and rough experience while on safari but some cannot do away with decadence and grandeur. If you are from the latter tribe, we have this magical luxury getaway for you. Sitting on the rugged beach, right on the edge of the Yala National Park and overlooking the Indian Ocean is this luxury tented camp accommodation. It comprises of 28-cocoons shaped tents, an open-air bamboo clad bar which is no less of an architectural marvel in itself, a dining catering to all kinds of authentic local cuisines, a free-form swimming pool, and a Sanctuary Spa. They have their own in-house trained team of naturalists and state-of-the-art vehicles to give you the ultimate luxury safari experience.
If you are in a mood to imitate the mammal that you are after, don’t let go of the opportunity of staying at a treehouse. How many of us can really let go of our feeling of adventure of staying in one? The spread is elegant and romantic to boot, perfect for cozying in with your love. And you don’t have to break your bank to book a stay even! Isn’t that a boon? Well, if you are not up for the treetops, you can even choose their luxury tent options. They have fascinating dining concepts where you can choose from Lakeside Breakfast and dining on a rock to lunch at a village house or jungle BBQ nights. They have several types of Safari packages on offer suitable for both couples and family. You are not going to forget this luxury glamping experience in a jiffy.
Wilpattu National Park
Escape the frustration of the crowded madness of Yala and enjoy some superior natural beauty in peace and solitude as you head out to Sri Lanka’s largest national park. Wilpattu National Park still retains its old-world charm thanks to the distance it maintains from the mass tourism. Jeep jams are rare and you can, in fact, enjoy the wild vibe of a true Sri Lankan forest here. Talking about leopards, it comes only second to Yala regarding the number of animals in the park. But you have to consider the size of this park; after all, it is the largest of the lot. But not all parts of the jungle are open for tourism. If you want to stay at a place for longer and take multiple safaris over a few days, then, Wilpattu will definitely be rewarding. The scenery of Wilpattu is enigmatic! Spanning a colossal 1310 sq km, the national park has around sixty natural lakes or “Willus” (hence, the name). Wilpattu roughly translates to “Land of Lakes”. The first thing you will notice is its intense wildness. The jungle with dense foliage gives a very primitive feel. To actually get to spot a leopard in this setting is truly thrilling. There are around 30-35 leopards in the core area of Wilpattu, so chances might be slim compared to Yala but the experience of trailing the cat in this untamed wilderness is priceless.
Best time to see leopards in Wilpattu
Wilpattu National Park is situated on the west coast of the island country and remains open all through the year. It is quite near to the cultural triangle, so if you are doing the circuit, you can easily plan Wilpattu NP. It is best advised to time your visit during the drought season of May through to September. The heavy undergrowth diminishes a bit during this time thereby increasing your chances of spotting the wildlife. The worst of rain in this part lasts from October to December. Though the rains eventually die down in January the resultant thick foliage will be present to obscure your view. But by February it starts to thin down again and keeps this way till April.
Wildlife friendly accommodation in Wilpattu
Leopard Trails Camp Wilpattu
Your safari dreams of living it up like a Maharaja of the yore will come true here! What with plush tents crammed with all modern-day convenience and well-appointed and spacious living quarters? Surrounded by lush and raw wilderness, the true sights and sounds of the wild will never leave your side as you slip into unashamed luxury. Helmed by professional staff and dedicated and passionate rangers to guide your wildlife safari, you will return with a newfound love towards nature. Trained guide shoots up your chances of quality animal sighting. Dining is devilishly delicious with every taste bud lovingly catered to.
Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris
Travelers who scoff at luxury and look towards roughing it up during their wildlife experience and spend that extra dollar on the quality of safari instead – this option is for them! Here the theme is rustic with mostly all modern amenities thrown in. But the setting of the camps is such that you will feel there is just a tent flap keeping you away from the mystic forest. This is also glamping, but much on the scale of wildlife ‘expedition’ and less on a royal ‘game hunt’. Taking the love for flora and fauna ahead, they plan your safaris immaculately. Armed with two experts, every game drive becomes a lesson in animal spotting, learning their behavior and more information on their habitats instead of just a sighting. So look no further if you really want to amp up your safari experience.
What to look for when booking a leopard safari
Like the five fingers of your hand, five safari operators won’t be the same. Their business is profit-driven and they will try and hoodwink you in exchange for good monies. Yes, this tale definitely comes with a twist – as an ethical and eco-conscious safari operator will NEVER try to extract profit in the name of experience. But then how will you know if you are being taken for a ride or not?
Simple answer: QUESTION. And start from very basic.
Which national park do they recommend and why? Confirm if the season is right, whether the park blocks will be open and what kind of footfall is expected during safari times. Find out whether it is an immersive wildlife experience or a commercial one. One critical question which most travelers miss is whether the national park will fall within their Sri Lankan travel itinerary or not. Once you have narrowed down the options, delve deeper.
How many safari days do they suggest to optimize your leopard sighting or the duration of each safari (Though this will also change park-wise, please keep in mind quick safaris will yield fewer animal viewings naturally)?
Also a wildlife safari tour operator should really love the local wildlife (you will get the vibe from the reviews only). And they should be knowledgeable and passionate enough to do some value-additions to your regular safari experience. They should know the park layout like the back of their hands. They can advise various quieter corners depending on the time and season of your visit.
What to pack
- Protective hat
- A light wrapper for early morning chills
- Light-colored cotton t-shirts to soak up all the sweat later in the day
- Changeable Trousers which goes from full length to quarters or even shorts-length
- Comfy shoes because although you are not allowed to get off from the vehicle just in case of emergency it’s better not to trip on your flipflops
- Sunscreen for Sri Lankan sun
- Lip balm for chapped lips
- Insect repellant cream for Sri Lankan mozzies
- Scarf or dust mask for dust protection because safari mostly comprises of offroading experience and dry months can raise quite some dust from the forest floor
- For motion sickness because all the safaris are by car and are generally half a day at least if not a full day. So be ready for the toss and tumble especially if you are sitting in one of the backseats.
- If you are prone to acute backache, keep a painkiller handy just in case.
Camera with a good enough zoom lens
- For safaris, it is better to put your camera on a sports mode because at every instance either you will be on the move or the animal will be. It is very rare when both elements are stationary.
Needless to say, the price varies both depending on the park you are visiting and the duration of your safari. Inevitably a half-day gig will charge you less. Prices also change depending on the number of adults and children. And if you engage a reputed company with a decade long experienced naturalists, be ready to shell out a premium price. Generally, a safari price includes the park entrance fee, vehicle hire charges, guide fee, taxes, etc. of course, all the elements will change according to the park and season of visit. But it is also important to point out that some parks don’t require a full-day visit. Let us go park by park and give you all the info (source: viator.com) –
|National Park||Full Day||Half Day||Best Type |
|Yala National Park||USD 110 per head |
(inclusive of a private tour + BBQ dinner on the beach )
|USD 50 per head (4 hr duration)||Full Day|
|Wilpattu National Park||USD 100 per head (12 hr)||USD 75 per head||Best is half-day on day 1 afternoon and another half-day day 2 morning|